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The Law of Compensation (1917)

The Law of Compensation (1917) Norma Talmadge Film Corporation/Selznick Pictures. Produced by Joseph Schenck. Directed by Julius Steger and Joseph A. Golden. Scenario by Edna G. Riley. Camera by John Urie. Cast: Norma Talmadge, Frederick Esmelton, Chester Barnett, John Charles, Sally Crute, Fred G. Hearn, Mary Hall, Edwin Stanley, Robert Cummings, Marie Reichardt, Harry Burkhardt, Baby Lorna, Frank Dawson. 6 reels. Copies of this film are located at the Library of Congress (35 mm., incomplete) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (35mm. acetate negative and 16mm viewing print with pulled sprocket holes)

Review from Variety
Review from Motion Picture
Review from Moving Picture World
Viewing comments

Review from Variety, April 20, 1917


John Graham Frederick Esmelton
Flora, his wife Norma Talmadge
Ruth, his daughter Norma Talmadge
Allen Hayes, Ruth's husband Chester Barnett
Frank Trevor, a young attorney John Charles
Grace Benton, a wealthy society girl Sally Crute
Henry Thurman, a lawyer Fred O. Hearn
Mrs. Wayne, a flighty neighbor of Ruth's Mary Hall
Raymond Wells Edmund Stanley

Norma Talmadge has scored a hit in this new Selznick production. Of course she had a good vehicle in the way of a play, for Wilson Mizner, the author, is not a figure among the failures as writers. The direction of Julius Steger and Joseph A. Golden helped, and from that combination of the stage and the screen one has the right to expect much. Much is given in this feature, although the meaning of the title and the play--the Scriptural law that "Whatsoever a man soweth--" is presented in a rather compelling way; in fact, rather disturbing to the self-complacent. One hitch in the story is the fact that Trevor gets away without suffering the penalty for his heartlessness, while the girl gets all the punishment. That grates on the sensibilities of those who believe in fair play. There are three hard parts to play in the piece, Miss Talmadge's naturally, then would come Trevor (John Charles), and Wells (Edmund Stanley). They are of the type which real men despise, and their acting was of a high order. The other parts carried themselves naturally. The story is that of a young wife (Ruth Hayes), who is on the point of being led astray by her ambition to become a singer and the wiles of a "song plugger" (Raymond Wells) but is prevented by her father becoming acquainted with the affair, and telling her the story of his own life and her mother's miserable end through an almost similar combination, only it was a lawyer (Frank Trevor) who was the means of her downfall. The father has forced a confession from Wells before he tells his daughter the story, and when it is ended shows it to her. The last of the glamour is swept aside, and the young husband (Allen Hayes), who does not know the narrow escape his home has had, is surprised at the emphasis of the loving greetings with which he is received on his return from business. The play carries a lesson, yet it is in no sense a sermon, and it is powerfully dramatic in its presentation of the truth that in the end the scales must balance.

Review from Motion Picture, July 1917

"The Law of Compensation" (Selznick). -- I cannot honestly say that I consider this play worthy of the talents of Norma Talmadge. It hinges on the old plot of the terrors that come to a woman who forsakes her home and child for another man. On the other hand, as a preachment it is decidedly worth while and a veritable bit of human life. The first reel sadly needs cutting. The boarding-school episodes seem unnecessary and too long-drawn-out and tire one before the vital action of the drama begins. Chester Barnett lends attractive support.


Review from Moving Picture World, May 5, 1917

Splendid Adaptation of Wilson Mizner's Story for Selznick

Program Features Norma Talmadge

Reviewed by Margaret I. MacDonald

JULIUS STEGER and Joseph A. Golden are jointly responsible for the excellence of direction evidenced in "The Law of Compensation," which is an adaptation of a story by Wilson Mizner, and is presented by Joseph M. Schenck. In its visualized form the story is so thoroughly human, so truthful a reflection of the joys and sorrows of domestic life, so brim full of pathos as its story within a story reaches its climax, that we forget that after all it is just a repetition of what many other picture productions have attempted to tell. As told in the picture, it is a story that reaches into the heart of every home. The evil element, what there is of it, is so totally overbalanced by a strong depiction of the nobler and more elevating instincts of life that there can be no question about the lesson of the story getting over. There is also a wholesomeness and sweetness added by the presence of the child in the home.

The picture opens with some attractive and well-staged scenes in the grounds of a young ladies' boarding school, dissolving later to the home of the favorite of the school (Norma Talmadge), who has just completed her education and has returned to brighten the life of a doting father (Frederick Esmelton). Her lover (Chester Barnett), obliged to leave town to take a position, begs her to marry and accompany him. This she does with the consent of her father, and a year later finds her a happy wife and mother. The entry on the scene of an ordinary "song-plugger" who flatters her into believing that she can become a New York headliner in musical comedy all but destroys he domestic felicity of her life. A timely warning to her father, who has left a sum of money with an old friend to be given to her as she may require it, prevents what otherwise might have resulted in domestic tragedy. Her mother's story, similar to what her own might have been, is told to her by her father and visualized on the screen. This portion of the picture is unusually compelling. We are not sure, however, that its intensity was not added to considerably by the appropriate musical accompaniment given it at the New York theater, where the picture was reviewed. During the deathbed scene "Asa's Death" from Grief's [sic] "Peer Gynt" was played, followed by "Lead, Kindly Light."

[omitted a photo which is not identifiable, with the cut line "Scene from 'The Law of Compensation' (Selznick)]

Norma Talmadge has possibly never appeared to better advantage than in this production. The same may be said of Chester Barnett and Frederick Esmelton. Some attractive tinting appears in the first reel of the picture in connection with a number of delightful exterior locations.

Viewing Comments:

Talmadge is bright and enthusiastic, but not yet the actress she would become. If not approached with great expectations, it is still a pleasing performance. Contemporary reviews note message of the film, but to a modern audience it may read differently. After her active life at a girls school, Talmadge's character finds life as a suburban housewife boring despite her father's admonition that with a child and a husband who loves her, she has enough to make her happy. Her inexperience and naiveté make her easy prey for a scam artist, who promises to make her a Broadway star for a large sum of money. She is sure her family will be proud when she makes good, though her husband ignores her when she tries to talk about it. Discovering the crime in progress, her father, in a lengthy flashback, tells her the story of her mother, also played by Talmadge. Finding his wife with his smooth-talking partner, the husband simply throws up his hands, saying he'll grant her a divorce without stopping to ask if that is what she wants. The new marriage is a disaster, and she is abandoned to die. Duly frightened by the story and her own narrow escape, the daughter jumps up and down and kisses everyone, while her father smugly announces to her husband that she is "cured." One wonders, since both of the men in this piece, though depicted as loving husbands, are dangerously blind to the fact that a woman might have thoughts and feelings of her own.
Print viewed: 16mm print at the Museum of Modern Art.

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Last revised, December 28, 2008